Few things are as important to the home cook, or the professional chef, as a good set of knives.
They’re an invaluable tool for the daily preparation of your meals, and decent ones are an investment that should last for years, with proper care and maintenance.
While many cooking websites will dismiss the idea of buying a set in favor of buying individual pieces, there’s nothing wrong with getting a good set. They make a great gift for anyone setting up their first kitchen, and can make an attractive addition to your home décor.
Or, if you’re just not interested in taking the time to research and buy each blade separately, a set is an easy and convenient option.
That is, provided you know what to look for.
When it comes to knife sets, a well-known brand name doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting the best quality. It’s not uncommon for companies is to sell their second or third line products in a high priced set, hoping the brand name alone will be enough to make a sale.
Another trick is to load the set with slight variations in size of the same style, making it seem like you’re getting lots of blades when what you’re really getting is a bunch of repeats. Or, they will often add novelty products that will rarely be used in your kitchen.
The good news is that you don’t have to make these mistakes.
Before making a decision, have a look at your cooking habits and practices, and consider the various pieces that come with the set you’re thinking of purchasing.
Do you really need 12 steak knives? Will you be filleting your own fish, or are you more apt to purchase them already prepped from the market? A fillet blade, or the steak knives, or maybe a cleaver will likely sit in the block and collect dust if you purchase a set that isn’t suited to your own cooking style and eating habits.
Go through all of the tools offered and determine if you’ll really use them, or if they’re just a bit of eye candy that will only be used on rare occasions – if at all.
For most home kitchens, three or four knives will be sufficient for the majority of the work performed. Look for a set that includes the basic pieces:
- A paring model – for peeling, trimming and cutting smaller pieces of food.
- A chef’s knife – a multi-purpose blade for all general cutting duties, such as chopping, dicing, mincing and slicing.
- A serrated blade – for cutting bread, tomatoes, delicate fruit and cakes.
Again, depending on your cooking style, some additional pieces could be:
- A utility blade – an all-purpose performer for handling smaller pieces.
- A meat cleaver – for cutting up chicken, ribs and larger pieces.
- A vegetable cleaver – for chopping up and dicing veggies and herbs (or substituting as a general chef’s knife).
- A fillet knife – for filleting fish.
- A boning knife – for removing meat from chicken, ham, or roasts.
- A carving blade – for slicing thin pieces from roasts, turkey, chicken, ham, etc.
- A honing steel – for keeping the edges of your blades true and sharp.
- Kitchen shears – handy for multiple uses in the kitchen, from breaking down a chicken to cutting herbs to opening plastic packaging.
- A bread knife – not just for breads but handy for cutting through cake and squish fruits such as tomatoes.
THE MAKINGS OF A GOOD KNIFE
When buying kitchen cutters, the following points all contribute to the overall efficiency and enjoyment of a good knife:
When buying any kitchen tool for cutting, the best test is to handle it. It should have a comfortable grip to prevent fatigue, and a good “hand.” That is, it should feel as though you’ll be able to use it with dexterity, and without it feeling cumbersome, awkward or dangerous.
As with handling, weight is another point that’s very personal. With today’s sophisticated alloys, a lighter model can have all of the qualities and performance characteristics of the heavier blades from previous generations. Choose what feels best to you.
A well-made example will have the balance pretty evenly distributed between the blade and the handle. This will ensure that the cutting motion is smooth without requiring a lot of effort, and will reduce strain on the hand, wrist and forearm.
Blades can come in a variety of materials including carbon steel, stainless steel, high-carbon stainless alloys, and ceramic. And all have their good and bad points.
- Carbon steel blades – easy to sharpen and hold an edge longer than stainless, but prone to rusting.
- Stainless steel – good for stain and corrosion resistance, but they may dull quickly and can be harder to sharpen.
- Signature stainless steel alloys – often found in Japanese blades, these combine the best of carbon and stainless, but can be quite expensive.
- Ceramic – comes with a razor-sharp edge, but they may break and chip easily.
If you’re unsure of what type of blade you want, or would like more detail on each type of material, check out our post on Materials and Alloys.
Whether you prefer your blades constructed with forging, stamping or stock removal techniques, how they’re assembled is also important.
Have a close look at the knife set you’re considering and check for any indication of piecemeal work.
Any joints or welds will be a natural weak spot, prone to bending or breaking. Single-piece construction with either a three-quarter or full tang will offer the greatest integrity and overall durability.
Bolsters are not a necessary component for quality, and will be found more often in Western style knives than those of Japanese design and origin.
And carefully check the hilt, the area where the blade and handle meet. This spot is essentially the fulcrum and takes the brunt of the stress exerted when cutting, so make sure the transition area is well-joined with no gaps. This is important not only for strength but also for hygiene as any nooks may trap food particles, encouraging the growth of bacteria.
Today, handles are usually made from composites of thermoplastics/resin/vulcanized rubber and stainless steel or wood. Occasionally bone or antler is still used but they aren’t nearly as durable or water resistant as the synthetics.
Composites and stainless steel offer the best qualities in terms of strength and longevity while wood can become soft and rot, and bone will dry out over time, becoming brittle.
Comfort and safety are also important in a good handle (and for preventing nasty accidents in your kitchen in general). Look for ones that have been ergonomically designed to reduce stress and fatigue, and that offer a non-slip or textured grip.
The cutting edge should run the full length of the blade, from the hilt or bolster right through to the tip. This gives a greater range of motion for different cutting techniques, and is essential for proper honing and sharpening.
And of course, the edge should be free of any nicks, dents or chips.
You can read more on Construction here.
Beware of any claims about blades that “never need sharpening.” They don’t exist. At some point, they’ll lose their edge and become dull. And if you can’t sharpen them, they’re basically a disposable item.
This claim usually comes from makers of ceramic models, which require specialized equipment to sharpen for massed produced models and the eyes of well trade Japanese knife maker for the better models (yes, they are hand sharpened at the factor).
All edges will become dull with use. They should be maintained with a honing steel or strop, and sharpened with a diamond steel, sharpening stones, or an electric sharpener.
For safety purposes, and to maintain a sharp edge, knives should never be stored loose in a cutlery drawer.
That’s another bonus with buying a set, as most will come with a storage block made of wood, stainless steel or tempered glass. They’ll help to keep a keen edge on your blades, and make a handsome addition to a countertop.
Just as a brand name isn’t a guarantee of good quality, your decision also shouldn’t be based on price alone.
Look for a set that meets the standards outlined above, and that works with your budget.
Now, to help with your decision making, here are reviews of five different sets with varying price points that meet most, if not all, of the components needed for quality and value.